Queho Posse Chapter
E Clampus Vitus
Amargosa Clay Mine
Decicated October 19, 2008 (6013)
Under the polished dome of the leadership of
Robin "Dusty" Means
The redshirted members of the
Queho Posse Chapter 1919
Of the Ancient and Honorable Order of
E Clampus Vitus
Recognizes the incredible
Million Dollar Clay Industry of the Amargosa Valley
At its doins on
October 17-19, 6013
At Jack Longstreet's Hotel and Casino
In The Amargosa Valley
Keepsake authored by Clamphistorian
Mark Hall-Patton, XNGH, DS-3
Amargosa Valley's Million Dollar Clay Industry
A Keepsake issued for the
October 17-19, 6013 (2008)
Doins of the
Queho Posse Chapter 1919
E Clampus Vitus
At the direction of and under the impaired leadership of Noble Grand Humbug
Robin "Dusty" Means
Keepsake authored by that bastion of historical knowledge, the most cunning of linguists, the shy and unassuming,>
Mark Hall-Patton, XNGH, DS-3
And rendered into print by the
Amargosa Valley's Million Dollar Clay Industry
For the prospectors of the old west, southern Nevada was a veritable cornucopia of minerals. Gold and silver, gypsum and dolomite, lead and marble, turquoise and copper have all been mined, quarried, or otherwise gouged from the mountains and valleys of the region. One natural treasure of the earth, however, stood out among all the others in the Amargosa Valley though; this was clay.
Clay? Yes! Though his discovery was not the first (clay claims had apparently been staked as early as the 1870s in the area, according to one source), it was the discovery of clay in the Amargosa Valley by Ralph Jacobus "Dad" Fairbanks in 1916 that led to an extractive industry which is even today still in operation.
The clay found in the Amargosa Valley is not the type which is used for porcelain, or other types of pottery. Clays of this type are referred to as plastic. Instead, it is a clay useful in industry, especially in the oil industry. Amargosa Valley's clay is mainly hydrous magnesium silicates, a material important to filtering oil similar to talc.
The Ash Meadows area clay is also known as Fuller's Earth, which is a term for any nonplastic clay or similar material that can be used to filter or purify oils, whether mineral or organic. It is often used to filter colors from petroleum. The name "Fuller's" is derived from the fact that a fuller was the person who fulled, or kneaded wool in water mixed with certain clays to remove grease and oils. The clays the Fuller used became known as Fuller's Earth, though the term covers many different types of clay. The Fuller's Earth clay found in the Ash Meadows area of the Amargosa Valley was named Brockonite by S. Frank Brock, one of the major clay pit owners and promoters.
"Dad" Fairbanks, who found the clay claims that brought the industry to the valley, first came to the Death Valley region in 1876. He moved to Ash Meadows in 1905, buying a spring now known as Fairbanks Springs and creating a tent store and roadhouse there (a site plaqued by the Queho Posse and Billy Holcomb chapters, in conjunction with the Boomtowns History Conference in 2005). In 1916, Fairbanks noticed a Paiute woman, the wife of Panamint Tom, washing her hair. As Fairbanks was later quoted,
"She was doing it in an old gold pan full of something that looked like a mixture of mud and water and about the thickness of buttermilk. I watched her and when she'd finished the job her hair was soft and clean and glossy. I asked her where she had got the stuff and she pointed out a certain hill. I immediately went to the hill, and found a veritable mountain of valuable filtering clay, and staked out my claim on it. When I first began prospecting, this claim wouldn't have been worth a thin dime. But the change from oats to gasoline had made a big difference …
Fairbanks did not market his claim immediately, but word of his find did leak out. A mining engineer named S. Frank Brock began looking into the area, and found an incredible area of six square miles of good clay. He staked his claim to the entire area, which was just over border from California in the same Ash Meadows area as Fairbanks' claim.
Brock was looking to make a profit from his find, so he began to work on convincing oil companies that his Brockonite, as he called the clay from his finds, was better than the Fuller's Earth currently being used. His first success was convincing Standard Oil of California to test hundreds of tons of the clay from his claims in their filtration of oil from their California fields.
The test was successful, and soon other companies were testing the new clay. By the mid 1920s, Brick had convinced five oil companies to use his clay. These were General Petroleum, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of California, Associated, Union, Pan-American, and Pacific. These each bought into Brock's finds, bringing him about $350,000, and making his claims a success.
General Petroleum created a subsidiary company named General Clay (certainly an inventive team came up with that name). In 1925, General Clay began work on the quarter-section General Petroleum owned. They were soon shipping 400 tons of clay a month. They weren't the largest operation, though. That belonged to a consortium headed by Pan-American Oil, which began shipping 1200 tons a month soon afterward.
The issue became how to process the clay, and how to ship it. To be usable, Fuller's Earth type clays need to be mined or quarried, crushed and dried. Early processing consisted of crushing and drying the clay right at the pits. This was not particularly efficient, since none of the companies had larger enough mills to crush and dry the amounts of clay it was possible to produce.
Within a couple of years most of the clay operations were consolidated into a company named Death Valley Clay. This company was headed by G. Ray Boggs, a mining engineer from Kansas by way of Yale.
The need for transportation was well known to Boggs when he got involved with the Clay mines. He built a "baby-gauge," or two-foot gauge, railroad to carry the clay from the mines to be processed. Since the mines had begun to produce significant tonnage of clay, most of the clay had been hauled by truck over the state line into California, to be loaded on the Tonopah and Tidewater at the Bradford Siding.
Bradford Siding was named for John Bradford, who actually ran the Holt tractor that hauled ore wagons to the siding, where he had a small milling operation. The siding was on the T & T, but the tractors were not as efficient as if the railroad was able to come right to the mines.
Some years earlier, the Tonopah and Tidewater had asked the California Railroad Commission for permission to lay a new track to the ines at Ryan and Old Ryan, in Death Valley. While the railroad, which was owned by Borax Consolidated, Ltd., the parent company of the mines of the Pacific Coast Borax Company being serviced by this extension, thought this would be easily approved, the Commission felt they were not in a position financially to do so, and rejected the request. In response, the Pacific Coast Borax Company created the Death Valley Railroad, a new railroad, to run a narrow gauge from Death Valley Junction, on the Tonopah and Tidewater, to the mining camps of Ryan and Old Ryan.
This company was approved to build the new narrow gauge railroad, and the T & T, which had already begun laying tract over the proposed route, sold its right-of-way to the new company. Since this was all done between companies owned by the same corporate entity, this went smoothly. The new Death Valley Railroad began making money from its inception.
In 1926, the clay pits were being successful enough to require a rail line to the pits. Part of the reason was the small mill at the clay pits, which was run by a submarine engine. If was notoriously unreliable. In one incident, according to David Myrick in his book of railroads in the area, that,
"When one mechanic attempted to instill a little life into the reluctant motor through injection of a sniff of ether, there was a very definite response - the injector was blown through the roof of the machinery house and the flywheel was broken."
To address this, the clay needed to be hauled to a larger, more reliable mill in Death Valley Junction. This mill had been used for the Pacific Coast Borax Company's mines at Ryan, but when those mines were closed, it was also. G. Ray Boggs decided it would make a more efficient site for milling his clay, and worked with the Pacific Coast Borax Company to use the mill and provide the needed railroad access to move his product there.
To build a line from the Tonopah and Tidewater to the clay pits, it was decided to use the Death Valley Railroad again, since it's narrow gauge rolling stock was available. A three-track line was built out to the clay pits, which allowed the narrow gauge engine and cars to be used, as well as the standard gauge engines and cars of the T & T. This railroad, continued operations only into 1930, when it was closed. The line from the Tonopah and Tidewater to the clay mining operations was turned over to the T & T, and the third rail was removed. It became a standard gauge railroad, served by the T & T, until that railroad went out of business in 1940.
The new spur was a success, with five trains daily running over the line. With the mill at Death Valley Junction providing the power, electricity was brought to the Ash Meadows area, without worry for state borders. After this mill closed in 1940, it was moved across the valley to near the marble quarry at Carrera, where it was reconstructed to be part of a cement plant. This operation, financed by investors from the Philippines, was intended to make colored cement. The advent of World War II led to abandonment of the project, but the foundations are still quite visible from Highway 95 south of Beatty.
Clay mining in the Ash Meadows area reached its zenith in 1927 - 1929, when shipments totaling one million dollars were made each year. With this level of operation, G. Ray Boggs was a very successful operator.
Boggs had put his imprint on the area with his clay success. He decided to expand into gold mining, and bought the Carrera Marble Quarry and the townsite of Carrera where he made a strike in 1928. The story given at the time was that his efforts were for naught, until his wife pointed to the ground and said, "Dig there." A small amount of high-grade ore was found at that site, and later enough in the area to ignite a small gold rush.
Boggs, feeling his success, then founded the first airline to serve Reno and Las Vegas. Named Nevada Airlines, it's chief pilot was Roscoe Turner, a noted air racing pilot of his day. Turner, in addition to claiming the honor of designing the first airline pilot's uniform, also insisted that the new airline use Lockheed Vega aircraft. His decision to use a Lockheed airplane may have been influenced by the owner of one of the other Clay operations, the United Death Valley Clay Company, who happened to be president of Lockheed at the time.
Flying one of the Nevada Airlines Lockheed Vegas in a race across the country, Turner set a new transcontinental speed record, so Nevada Airlines used "Americas' Fastest Airline" as its motto. It was probably better than Turner's own suggestion, "The Alimony Special."
In 1929, Reno and Las Vegas were finally connected by the airline, which was actually based in Los Angeles. For a very short time, perhaps only four or five flights, you could fly between Las Vegas and Reno. Flights also went to Carrera, Death Valley Junction, and other locations as Boggs needed.
Alas, this experiment in flying was not to survive the year. With the stock market crash of October 1929, Boggs lost sufficient income to close the airline, and Reno and Las Vegas were not connected by air again until Bonanza Airlines after World War II.
Near the clay pits, a community known as Clay Camp came into being. While never an incorporated town, it was a well-known area in Ash Meadows. There was a school in the camp built with funds provided by Edward L. Doheny, who owned the Pan-American Oil Company in California. This school building was used for a few years, and then an agreement was worked out between California and Nevada authorities to allow the students from the Nevada side of the state border to go to school in Death Valley Junction. The building was later moved to Pahrump in 1944, where it was used into the 1950s.
The location of Clay Camp is not precisely known today. It was mainly a tent camp, with most buildings consisting of canvass walls and ceiling above a base of five-gallon cans filled with earth and held in place with upright boards. Not a fancy housing form, but quite functional in the desert heat of southern Nevada. There were a few more substantial buildings, including a barracks building built for the railroad workers out of railroad ties, and a wood recreation hall built by the Associated Oil Company. Since much of the camp was canvass, and the more substantial building were later moved to other sites in the area, in later recollections the location got muddied and lost.
The camp did have an airfield. Since the United Death Valley Clay Company's president was Fred E. Keeler was also the president of Lockheed Aircraft at the time, he wanted to be able to fly in and check on his investment. The field was not much more than a scraped landing strip, but planes could, and did, use it.
One question which has not been answered in the literature is how violent was Clay Camp. Richard Lingenfelter, in his Death Valley and the Amargosa, calls the camp a
"a rip-roaring camp of close to a hundred roughnecks and camp followers, who boasted that it and its surroundings were the 'toughest thousand acres left of the old West.' It was a hodge-podge of boarding houses, tin shacks, and tents clustered around a grocery store, several roadhouses offering gambling and bootleg whiskey, and a row of cribs - all bent on relieving the men of their $5.50 a day as fast as they made it. It's isolation attracted several bootleggers, who set up their stills in the surrounding brush and ran their surplus to Las Vegas at night."
Celeste Lisle Lowe, the daughter of John Q. Lisle and Celeste Fairbanks, lived a Clay Camp in the mid 1920s, and remembered life somewhat differently. She remembered going to school with 12 to 15 other students, going to Shoshone to swim in the pool there, residents eating dinner at each other's homes and other social occasions. I believe it is likely that Lingenfelter, in this case, may have overstated the "wild west" aspects of the community since even he concedes that the only known violence was a despondent miner who committed suicide.
Clay mining continued after the demise of both the Death Valley Railroad, and, later, the Tonopah and Tidewater. During the 1930s, most Clay mining were smaller companies, like the Bell Pit, near today's American Borate Corporation, or ABC) mill, and the Associated Pit. As late as 1931, John Bradford's boiler and small mill which had been built at the Bradford Siding was still there, but long out of operation.
It is interesting to note that, during the 1930s, Death Valley Junction was nearly completely depopulated during the three hottest summer months. Since the mill would be closed down during this time, most of the population moved to cooler areas. Ash Meadows continued to be the most populated of the parts of the Amargosa Valley.
Clay Camp existed fitfully during the 1930s, finally completely closing in 1940 with the end of the T & T. With the various clay pits shutting down, most work was gone. Clay mining never completely stopped, but it slowed significantly enough that there was little reason to stay. However, there was a brothel and saloon near the camp, which served not only the residents of the Ash Meadows area, but also those of Death Valley Junction, a company town which did not allow saloons or other more personal forms of pleasure.
Clay mining ended for a few years, but the value inherent in the material caused L. A. Chemical in as early as 1948 to build a new plant in the valley. It operated for a few years, shutting down about 1952. Prospectors were back looking at the clay deposits in the 1960s. A company formed by brothers W. Howard, Jr., and Edward P. Prescott, which acquired a number of claims from a Mr. Ewing that were near the current town of Crystal. Industrial Mining Ventures, Inc., was incorporated in 1972, with headquarters originally in Colorado, and later in Las Vegas.
The company was acquired by Gulf Resources and Chemical Corporation of Houston in 1977, and continued to produce clay from the Ash Meadows and Lathrop Wells areas. Today, IMV continues in operation in the area, producing industrial clays including sepiolite, bentonite and saponite. For those readers who wish a geologic or industrial use description of these clays, the author refers you to an encyclopaedia. Another plant was built in the 1970s by the Tennco company, which operated for a number of years but closed in April 1986.
And what about Dad Fairbanks and his claims? He did not have to sell them, and held on to them until the value rose. He later recalled, as quoted in Lingenfelter,
"I held this claim until 1920, because not being poverty-stricken, as the majority of prospectors usually are, I didn't have to sell at the first figure offered. So, I hung onto it and shopped around for a buyer until the Associated Oil Company wanted it bad enough to take it off my hands for cash … I don't want to state the figure I got for this claim. But I can say that it was a tidy fortune - a comfortable stake for Dad Fairbanks and Mother for the rest of their days."
The mining of industrial clays has been a part of the Amargosa Valley throughout most of the twentieth century. Perhaps not as exciting as gold or silver, at a million dollars a year, even in the 1920s, this was a lucrative and important industry, leading to communities which are still around today. Let us celebrate the impact of a little-known, but quite remunerative, though somewhat dusty, industry.
A map of the T & T and DVRR, from Lingenfelter's Death Valley and the Amargosa shows clearly how close to California the area is not shown. For the literate and curious among the redshirts, some suggested further reading on the Clay Industry and the Amargosa Valley:
Hall, Shawn, Preserving the Glory Days; The Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Nye County, Nevada, 1999, University of Nevada Press
Lincoln, Francis Church, Mining Districts and Mineral Resources of Nevada, 1923, Nevada Newsletter Publishing Company
Lingenfelter, Richard E., Death Valley and the Amargosa; A Land of Illusion, 1986, University of California Press
McCracken, Robert D., A History of Amargosa Valley Nevada, 1990, Nye County Press
McCracken, Robert D., The Modern Pioneers of the Amargosa Valley,1992, Nye County Press
Myrick, David F., Railroads of Nevada and Eastern California; Volume II: The Southern Roads, 1992, University of Nevada Press
Robertson, Donald B., Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History; Vol. IV: California, 1998, Caxton Printers
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